An article headlined "Flowering of the Chaconia'', in the July 5 issue of the Express was riddled with errors, ambiguities and botanical absurdities.
It states, among other things, that "the Chaconia flower (sic) will continue to play its part in celebrating the independence of Trinidad and Tobago. It is the day of the year when it blooms profusely in the Northern Range.'' While there are plants such as Macfadyena unguis-cati (the Cat's Claw creeper — known to students as the Exam Plant), that do flower profusely for one or two days, Warszewiczia coccinea (Vahl) Kl. is certainly not one of these. The misconception might have come from a popular website that states "It is the national flower of Trinidad and Tobago because it blooms on August 31, which coincides with the day that Trinidad and Tobago became independent from Great Britain''. (wikipedia.org/wiki/Warszewiczia coccinea) accessed 2012/07/08. In fact the plant flowers throughout the year, particularly during the wet months. Quesnel and Farrell (Native Trees of Trinidad and Tobago) state that "it begins to flower as soon as the rains come in May, reaches its maximum flowering in July and continues to flower to the end of the year.'' The date of the Independence of Trinidad and Tobago happens to fall within that period.
The species exists in two forms: the wild type, known as the Single Chaconia and the cultivar – a mutant of the former, known as the double Chaconia. The bloom of the Single is a panicle (a compound inflorescence) consisting of a main axis 30 - 50 cm long, along which paired, stalked groups of flowers (cymes) are borne.
At the base of this axis and at right angles to it, are two smaller branches which also bear paired cymes. This arrangement gives the inflorescence the appearance of an inverted 'T.' The entire inflorescence produces between 600 to 800 flowers.
Each flower consists of a small, yellow corolla (collective name for the petals), the units of which are fused to form a short tube with free tips that overlap in the unopened bud. The calyx (collective name for the sepals) consists of five sometimes six units which are fused to the ovary and fused for most of their length; the free tips are broad and rounded. In any given cyme — that may consist of up to 30 flowers — one calyx lobe of one of the peripheral flowers is transformed into a long-stalked, egg-shaped, red, petal-like structure up to 7 cm long. This feature accounts for the attractiveness of the inflorescence. The flowers are hermaphrodite; the stamens have short filaments that are attached to the corolla tube; the hairy ovary is inferior (below all other floral elements), consists of two carpels and produces numerous ovules ( that become the seeds after fertilisation). The style terminates in a bifid stigma. At the base of the style there is a fleshy nectary.
In 1957, Grace Mulloon, accompanied by two friends one of whom was David Auyong, spotted a spectacular flowering plant at the top of a group of Chaconias in the Blanchisseuse Valley. Realising the importance of their find, the group made attempts to propagate it and sought the assistance of Roy Nichols, then a plant physiologist at the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture, St Augustine (ICTA). By February 1958, three plants were established from rooted cuttings, one of which was sent in 1961 to Kew gardens in the United Kingdom, where J Simmonds established four others by 1962. The plant, believed to be a mutant of Warszewicia coccinea was given the cultivar name "David Auyong''. It is of interest to note the dates involved.
Both the wild type and the cultivar have the same number of chromosomes. The principal differences between the two lie in the fact that whereas in the former only one of the five calyx lobes of one flower of the 20 or more that may exist in the cyme, is transformed, while in the latter at least one lobe, sometimes more, of every flower in a cyme is transformed, making the inflorescence spectacularly showy; additionally the transformed sepals in the cultivar are not long-stalked and the corolla is not as large as that in the single: this leads to the fact the petals cannot be as easily seen as they are in the wild type.
It is mistakenly thought that the double is the national flower; the Single is the National Flower. If one examines the 25 cent coin, or the Chaconia medal, one notices the inflorescence of the Single is depicted thereon. It must be remembered that the committee responsible for recommending various emblems would have met before the celebration of Independence on August 31, 1962. At the time of their meetings, little if anything, would have been known about the mutant (the double) other than by some members of the scientific fraternity.
There is good argument for the Double to be named the national flower. A wide belt of the New World tropics, from Costa Rica to Equatorial Peru and Brazil, which belt includes Trinidad and Tobago' is home to the wild type. The mutant, however, is uniquely Trinidadian. We in Trinidad and Tobago, and the world in general owe a great debt to Mr Auyong, who at great peril to his life, procured the material from which the plant was eventually propagated, for on subsequent visits by Mr Auyong and Mr Nichols to the site at which the plant was found, to obtain additional material for propagation, they discovered that the parent plant had been chopped down in a road-widening exercise.
Finally the article makes mention of the Asa Wright Nature Centre, stating among other things "this Centre was once called SIMLA''and "Simla was part of the Spring Hill estate in the Arima Valley''. Both of these and other statements are highly erroneous. It is suggested that readers consult the website of the AWNC – http:// http://asawright.org or the 40th Anniversary booklet "The Asa Wright Nature Centre 40th Anniversary — 1967-2007: Looking Back, Looking Forward" by James Fuller, for reliable information.
• Prof E Julian Duncan has lectured at the UWI Department of Life Sciences for over 35 years.